We Need Design at the Executive Table, and Here’s Why
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Even as Apple, Nike, and Airbnb outperform others by leading with design strategies, many companies still treat design as the extra touch, the bonus, the beauty of a product—which means the case for incorporating design and the best user experience into corporate goals and outcomes is still a hard sell in most of the business world.1
“Non-design-led companies think design is about ‘beauty,’” author and brand consultant Debbie Millman says, “and it’s actually about marketplace results, brand relevance, having a strong customer experience strategy.”2 The design perspective is a powerful agent in the success of business decisions and outcomes, making that role in the boardroom critical to business longevity.
Creative executives and leaders use design to identify problems and truly understand customers, building solutions on that information to improve the end product and the customer experience. The engaged and understood customer means a happier and more loyal one, contributing to company success.
When incorporated into boardroom decisions, design leads to more than just an isolated final product or experience. With a collaborative approach and constant focus on the user, it’s a necessary executive partner for business success.
Get the view from the other side.
Designers are well known for taking empathic approaches to understanding their users—putting themselves in the user’s shoes. When it comes to communicating with executives, the same rules apply. Whether it’s the role of branding, financial objectives, or market demands, all parts of the business need to be understood before making the case for design strategy and leadership.
Director of MINE, Christopher Simmons may have summed it up best when he stated, “It’s not appropriate to say, ‘I want to tell you how to run your business, but I don’t want to understand how your business runs.’”3 In other words, designers need to both hear the business plan and the goals and think about how leading with design would carry it forward or even improve it.
We tapped the senior director of UX Design at Intel, Andrew Hooper, for his best practices around design-led strategy. As he saw ad and branding agencies getting a seat at the table before him and larger budgets than his design team, he realized he needed a stronger grasp of how other parts of the business grow and evolve.
“I felt that for me to understand the business of design, I had to understand business,” he says. “There’s nothing worse than walking in… as the expert on a specific area, without any understanding or knowledge of the other domain or expertise around the room.”
Hooper’s time as a business development leader at Frog Design gave him valuable insight into and respect for those business roles, perspective that he then took back to the creative side. “If you come rolling into that environment without the intelligence to understand the experts in the room around that business,” he says, “you miss a golden opportunity.”
This translates to a need for constant education in several forms. It’s critical that the design leader deeply comprehends not just the executive goals, but also the existing market as supported by market data, where the business is currently, and where it needs to go. Part of this includes staying up to date on products in the works, as well as assessing successes and failures in both internal and external landscapes.
But all the knowledge in the world won’t help you without a clear dialogue and strong rapport, starting with listening to the business partners, responding to their needs, and most importantly, engaging them.
Connect, engage, energize.
The key design principle of putting yourself in your user’s shoes also comes in pretty handy in engaging with leadership. Hooper holds what he calls “building the narrative” as one of his best practices. It starts with understanding the existing marketplace and which teams and skills are needed and involved, and then slowing down that initial rush to create, to ensure everyone’s in agreement about what they’re making together. The key to this, he says, is a guideline as simple as a one or two sentence brief, but one that’s written to connect emotionally, and galvanizes the teams with the impact and relevance of the project.
“There’s a value for crafting and building [the brief] in such a way that it’s the rallying cry for what we’re trying to do—and it also defines what our goals are,” says Hooper.
Engaging business partners and executives involves using the same design principles that create positive customer experiences with lasting impact and increased customer loyalty. Appealing to ease, effectiveness, and emotion, says Allegra Burnette, principal analyst at Forrester Research, is the same intentional plan and approach that design takes to a user experience.
“Design is both visual interface and interaction,” Burnette says, “but it’s also about that problem understanding and problem solving.”4 The more this is demonstrated for executive partnerships, the more the value of design is seen as absolutely necessary.
Collaborate considerately and cost-effectively.
Education and engagement get design a seat at the table, but consistent and effective collaboration will help design stay there. When you’re able to show that involving design early in the process saves time and money while creating a better product, design becomes indispensable. Hooper strongly advocates for this as well, especially in light of a recent user experience that was brought to his team only when it broke apart after launch.
“The entire thing had to be rebuilt,” Hooper says, “and that costs time and a lot of money. If done properly, you can prove that you can save time and money if you employ these skill sets at the right phases of the program.”
And keeping those skill sets connected through all phases of delivery is just as important, he says. “Because then we can start to synthesize [questions and research] into insights and really understand the pain points, and then have some data around that to make those changes.”
Something else to keep in mind: Maintaining open communication and appreciation of work makes for positive collaboration. In referring to working with developers and other teams that might not see eye to eye with design, designer Luke Jones wrote on Medium that mutual respect and allowing ownership of work is crucial for teams to come together. “Mutual respect gets rid of the us and them mindset,” he wrote.5
Hooper also advocates for building strong partnerships with the teams beyond your own walls for visible success. Establishing solidarity and trust with other project contributors is just as important as connecting with the leadership level and also raises team value, he says.
“If you don’t align, then you just won’t get people’s attention,” he says. “You have to build that level of credibility and share passion and the commitment that you’re really there to do the right thing, and [show that] you’re trying to help a group or a team solve a problem.”
Defining design as merely beautiful finishing touches doesn’t just limit its effectiveness—it denies business the possibilities of elevated and multi-level success. From customer satisfaction to saving costs with aligned collaboration, the necessity and impact of including the design perspective can no longer be ignored in the boardroom. Designers show that they can grow and lead business success by building strong, lasting partnerships, understanding and working for business goals, engaging other leaders and teams, and connecting to the heart of customer desires.
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1Westcott, Michael. “Design-Driven Companies Outperform S&P by 228% over Ten Years.” Design Management Institute. March 10, 2014. http://www.dmi.org/blogpost/1093220/182956/Design-Driven-Companies-Outperform-S-P-by-228-Over-Ten-Years–The-DMI-Design-Value-Index
2,4 “What is ‘design-led’?” Adobe Creative Cloud for Enterprise. https://video.tv.adobe.com/v/18495t1/
3Benton, Dave. “How Designers Get a Seat at the CEO Table.” 99U. http://99u.com/articles/33909/christopher-simmons-designers-incharge
5 Jones, Luke. “Designers. Work Better with Developers.” Medium. March 17, 2016. https://medium.com/swlh/designers-work-better-with-developers-ecd509a00d30